‘Please save us, I want my family alive’

Helena (left), her son Eldar (middle), and her 2-year-old daughter Liubava. They fled Ukraine to Switzerland after the Russian invasion. Milena Nowak

Milena Nowak, a Polish national living in the suburbs of Zurich, has taken in a Ukrainian refugee family. What connected them was one Facebook message from a 16-year-old boy named Eldar.

This content was published on March 23, 2022 - 14:00

“With an open heart, we are asking you to save us from Russian aggression.” On March 4, Milena Nowak, a Polish national living near Zurich, found this message in her Facebook messenger inbox.

The sender's name was Eldar – a high school boy who lives near Zhytomyr in western Ukraine. The message was written in English, saying that he has a mother named Helena and a 2-year-old sister Liubava. His message added that his father had to stay behind in Ukraine because of the war, and that he wanted to seek refuge in a safe place in Europe.

He also told Milena that his mother was a lecturer in the local university, and he was the founder of a start-up. He said he was studying German and loved Switzerland.

Milena Nowak. Milena Nowak

In the Zhytomyr region, residents were facing massive Russian shelling. “My school was destroyed [in the attack]. Rockets could kill us at any moment. Please save us. I want my family alive. Please give us a chance to live a happy life."

Since the beginning of the war, Milena frequently posted information about the Swiss government’s support for refugees on Facebook. She had never met Eldar though and was surprised to receive such a message. She assumes the large number of refugees in Poland led the teenager to look further west in countries with more hosting capacity.  

2,000 kilometres in 3 days

Milena, who lives alone, had three days to prepare everything to welcome the family. She asked for donations of clothing and shoes on social media. Three cardboard boxes of supplies arrived shortly after including a pram for Liubava and a sofa bed for Eldar.

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Milena purchased some furniture, a chest for clothes and a kid's table for Liubava, but the rest was all covered by donations. “I was impressed that many people helped so quickly," she told SWI

Supplies delivered to Milena. Milena Nowak

Eldar's family arrived exhausted after traveling 2,000 kilometres (1,242 miles) over 3 days from Ukraine. As soon as they arrived, they took a shower and went to bed. Milena had prepared chicken soup for her new hosts, which they ate the following day.

‘My new family’

Although the family has found a safe place, they remain anxious.

Helena’s husband is back in Ukraine transporting medical supplies. They check in with each other everyday. But sometimes when she sees news of the war, Helena is brought to tears.

Milena gave Eldar an old laptop so he could keep in contact with his friends who have fled Ukraine.

On Helena's 42nd birthday, Milena got her a cake with a Ukrainian flag motif. However, Milena says, "I think they wish they celebrated her birthday at home." Milena Nowak

They are now living together in Milena's 40-square-metre apartment. Helena and Liubava use a guest bedroom and Milena sleeps in her bedroom. Eldar sleeps on a sofa bed in the living room.

Milena and Helena trade off cooking meals for the family. One day Milena prepares vegetarian food, and the other day Helena makes meat dishes.

When the family goes for a walk, Helena, who loves plants, teaches Milena the names of flowers. They talk about life in Ukraine, their family and food. “We talk about so many things in English, sometimes Polish, sometimes Ukrainian,” Milena told SWI. Milena calls the Ukrainian family her new "moja rodzinka,” which means “my family” in Polish.

The town of Pfäffikon, where Milena resides, was very helpful in processing the family's asylum request and arranging a school for Eldar. He has already started attending a local school. The family is expected to stay at Milena’s home until they find an apartment.

"What each of us can do may be just a small step. If you cannot provide a room, you can donate money or clothes. Those small steps will add up and become a big support."

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In compliance with the JTI standards

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